Whisky might be the most romanticized spirit on the planet – more accessible than absinthe and more challenging than gin. Whisky is part of cowboy folklore, Celtic heritage and appears in more genres of music than any other. Everybody who ever sang the blues, or rock’n’roll or country songs, sang about whisky probably more than they ever drank it. Every flawed hero of literature and television knows how to drink it and yet for all the saturation of whisky into our culture; I’ll bet it’s not enough alone to make you order a glass in a bar.
We have these ideas about whisky, but we rarely talk about how to approach it, how to begin, how to introduce people to the concept of it. When we do, we talk about facts, flavor profiles and palate preferences and how to smell, taste and cut with water.
But that’s not the thing. That’s the thing after the thing. The thing to understand is the concept of what has been poured into your glass. It’s a story. It’s all that romanticized, stuff-of-legend that you imagine and a little bit more. You just have to start at the beginning, with the idea of what whisky is. If you can grasp the idea of it, you’re ready to drink almost any malt you find yourself in possession of.
Whisky is elemental; it is earth, fire, water and air each playing its part in telling you the story of a place. And it is soul, the spirit of the people who made it that finds its way into the glass as well. Eventually you’ll taste the alcohol volume, the sweetness, the salt, the floral notes – but first, know what you’re tasting.
Earth: the grain grown and harvested under utmost care. Like grapes for wine, if it gets too wet, too cold, too hot it can ruin the flavor profile. But barley carries the unique properties of the region it was grown in, as well as the very type of grain itself. Not all barley is suitable for malting, not all barley is of the right quality.
Fire: the heat of the mash and the malting of the grain over peat, or the scorching of those virgin oak barrels for bourbon with blistering heat. Temperature, its presence or lack of is a vital component of the story that ends up in your glass.
Water: crystal clear from a Highland spring or silky from a limestone acquifer, water is unique as grain in its particular mineral composition and will make this whisky claim some geography too. The better the water, the better the whisky – after all, whisky is uisge beatha, the water of life.
Air: invisible like the wind but you can taste the change the air makes. The heating and cooling of the air will expand and contract the barrels, pushing and pulling flavor from the wood to the whisky. Just as trees collect their stories in growth rings, barrels collect flavor in their reuse journey. Bourbon first, or sometimes sherry, a variety of red wines, port – each leaves a distinct impression in the wood and that is then passed to the whisky too. Where the air is particularly salty in a warehouse set against the sea, like on Islay – you can smell and taste the saline quality of that ocean storm.
Whisky is about its place and its people – where the earth, fire, water and air of that whisky can be found and the people who gathered it, tended it, turned it and blended it. Their stories, hardships and triumphs turned into the taste of sweet victory and the bitterness of a cold winter. A whisky takes on a spirit in the same way it gives away the Angel’s Share and you can taste it, if you just try. There’s a story in the glass, an expression of something.
Which is why you can’t argue that Scotch whisky is better than bourbon or rye, Japanese, Indian or even New Zealand whisky. Whisky is all the elements of wherever you are. Japanese whisky tells me a different story, about different mountains, grain and different water. And whisky drinkers should be lovers of story, first and foremost.
Now, there are plenty of people who will try telling you that story is about the alcohol percentage or the cask finish or whether or not it is a single malt, a blend, a non-age-statement whisky… but those are just signposts and markers that the story leaves behind.
A whisky tells its story by the paradoxes and complexities it can hold in amber suspension. A little savory while also sweet, a touch of bitterness that follows sweet floral roses. Umami notes of seaweed darting in and out of coffee and chocolate sherry notes that tease the tongue and that is just the beginning. When you begin, you might taste alcohol burn and nothing but peat even in the most delicate drops – but give it a little time and you’ll taste ocean currents, mountain passes, long summer days and winter storms.
So why should you drink whisky? Because whisky can be as simple or as complex as you like. It can tell you a different story at any time of the day. It can be sweet and soothing when you want something simple, or as complex as a degustation when you feel like a challenge. Because whisky will demand your attention, quietly and persistently once it’s in the glass. Whisky will make you think and the more you think about it, the more it will reveal itself to you. Because whisky will share a story with you and invite you to tell one of your own – I have whisky for heartbreak, for triumph, for funerals and for lovers.
I was once told my love of whisky wasn’t particularly feminine. It seemed strange coming from a tattooist who draws half-naked women for a living, but apparently that makes you an expert on femininity. I was offended at the time (I was drinking a very reasonable Auchentoshan Three Wood that I nearly gulped) and perturbed for much longer.
Whisky has something to teach even smart women (people). You can tell a smart woman (person) by if she knows that, or sees whisky as just another thing to be mastered.
You see, this is where I will digress to romanticism for a moment. Of course whisky is a woman’s drink – if for no other reason than women make it and I, being all woman, drink it with passion and respect. I believe whisky itself is more feminine than masculine. It can be like a woman – warm and approachable one moment, artic the next. Complicated but still simple. Can be beautiful to look at but too sharp on the tongue to be savoured. But for a good one – a whisky or a woman, you go to the ends of the earth.
I drink whisky because I’m not afraid of complexity, of a challenge in the glass. In fact, too sweet or too simple and I might soon be bored. A woman who drinks whisky isn’t drinking to pass the time or just to escalate a party, because she’s very comfortable with the drink in her glass demanding some attention.
And yes, a woman who drinks whisky can be assured she can sit alone at a bar with confidence and conversation will find her if she wants it, or leave her well alone if she chooses. A woman who drinks whisky is still defying a needless stereotype and redefining her own rules of engagement.
A woman (or anyone) who drinks whisky isn’t afraid to go the distance and learn something new along the way. Not every whisky I taste for the first time wins me over, sometimes I have to work through layers of spice, heat, salt and fruit before I find the story the glass is trying to tell me – but I have patience and endurance, because women who drink whisky know that sometimes it just takes time. Whisky has something to teach even smart women (people). You can tell a smart woman (person) by if she knows that, or sees whisky as just another thing to be mastered.
Sometimes you have to learn something new. Too many people start drinking whisky in a sweet Jack’n’Coke or a Woodstock and Cola. Worse, they took shots of moonshine equivalent and haven’t touched it since. But just a little knowledge is dangerous; whisky is the drink of a life-long learner. You simply need a new story to go with your whisky.
When you learn to drink whisky properly, you learn to smell, then taste and taste again. You learn to know the story before you lift your glass and how you really can, cut it anyway you like with ice or water. You’ll cut it too far in order to pull out every drop of flavour for your tastebuds and olfactory to savour. You will learn the delight of a whisky sour, a Sazerac, the Manhattan, the Julep and that you most definitely do not require Coca-Cola. Whisky will teach you patience, to listen to more than words, to seek out new paradigms.
You will travel around the world and taste the earth, fire, air and water from far-flung corners of the world. From a glass of whisky, you can explore countless new territories without boarding a plane or catching a boat. Maybe that’s why you should drink more whisky, to see the world through different eyes and to learn stories other than your own. Stuck? I’ll take you for a drink and tell you a story or two.
Whisky is elemental; it is earth, fire, water and air each playing its part in telling you the story of a place. And it is soul, the spirit of the people who made it that finds its way into the glass as well.